I’m not usually one for patting myself on the back, but I know I did one thing right as a parent: fostered a love of reading in both of our kids. It began with countless hours of Harriet and I reading to the kids when they were young, then came the phase of pressing upon them to read this or that book I thought they’d appreciate, and now we’re in what I call the era of reciprocity: now they’re both recommending books to me, and I’m thankful for it.
Recently, Owen gifted me the book of short stories, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, by Jim Shepard, an author I had heard of but never had a chance to read.
Let me say: the kids have good taste. This collection of eleven stories was nominated for a 2007 National Book Award and demonstrates a writer at the apex of his creative powers.
All of the stories are told by first-person narrators. Many of them involve sons seeking approval of the father, or brothers working out their familial roles. Most of the stories have their roots in historical events and must have been heavily researched. There’s one about the very busy chief executioner of Paris during the Reign of Terror. One centered around the massive 1964 earthquake in Alaska. One narrated by the Greek playwright Aeschylus. Another about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
As compelling as these historical tales were, the two stories that had the biggest impact on me were “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak,” about two high school football players who laid waste to their opponents on the field in order to get the attention of their fathers, and the best story of the bunch, “Courtesy for Beginners,” about a 12-year-old boy whose parents sent him to summer camp because they had their hands full with the younger brother who was suffering from mental health issues.
The narrator hates the camp. He also has to battle every minute not to hate himself. He didn’t display enough patience toward his troubled younger brother. He didn’t treat him as kindly as he might have. He wouldn’t share his records. And when he gets a call from home saying his brother is going to be sent to an institutional setting for treatment, the narrator turns and addresses the reader, asking for what we all want: to be understood and loved . . .